Wednesday, 22 May 2024

Trump Asks Judge in Hush-Money Case to Step Aside

Former President Donald J. Trump is asking the judge overseeing his criminal case in Manhattan to step aside, citing ties between the judge’s family and Democratic causes, Mr. Trump’s lawyers said in a statement Wednesday.

The motion for recusal, which has not yet been filed publicly, represents the latest effort by Mr. Trump’s lawyers to move his case away from the judge, Juan M. Merchan of State Supreme Court in Manhattan.

The Trump legal team also recently sought to shift the case, brought by the Manhattan district attorney, to federal court. On Tuesday, the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, filed court papers opposing that effort, and he is expected to oppose the effort to get Justice Merchan to recuse himself.

Mr. Bragg’s case centers on a hush-money payment to a porn star in the last days of the 2016 presidential campaign. The $130,000 payment, made by Mr. Trump’s former fixer, bought the silence of the porn star, who was otherwise poised to tell her story of a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump has denied the accusations against him — that he falsified records to cover up the potential sex scandal — and has lashed out at both Mr. Bragg and Justice Merchan, noting that both are Democrats.

“President Trump, like all Americans, is entitled under the Constitution to an impartial judge and legal process,” Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Susan R. Necheles and Todd W. Blanche, said in a statement on Wednesday announcing the decision to seek Justice Merchan’s recusal.

Yet their motion to recuse faces something of an uphill climb: The decision rests in the hands of Justice Merchan, who also presided over the unrelated tax fraud trial last year of Mr. Trump’s company. The company’s lawyers sought Justice Merchan’s recusal in that case as well, but he declined to step aside.

The company was convicted in December, and Justice Merchan ordered the maximum punishment, a fine of $1.6 million.

In the statement on Wednesday, Mr. Trump’s lawyers cited Justice Merchan’s actions in that case, in which they said he encouraged Mr. Trump’s former chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg, to cooperate against the former president and his company.

Although the full details of their arguments were not immediately clear because the motion has not yet been publicly filed, their statement outlined concerns about what they said were Justice Merchan’s political ties.

Justice Merchan’s daughter, they noted, is a partner and the chief operating officer of Authentic Campaigns, a Democratic consulting firm that did work for President Biden’s 2020 campaign. The firm, they said, “stands to benefit financially from decisions Judge Merchan may make in this case.”

Under New York State rules on judicial conduct, a judge should disqualify himself or herself from a case if a relative within the sixth degree had “an interest that would be substantially affected by the proceeding.” Ms. Merchan’s work on Democratic campaigns does not give her enough of an interest to qualify, according to experts.

But in their statement, Mr. Trump’s lawyers also seized on modest personal donations that Justice Merchan had made to Democratic campaigns. During the 2020 presidential election, Justice Merchan donated $15 to the Democratic group Act Blue earmarked for Mr. Trump’s opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., as well as $10 each to two other Democratic groups, including one called “Stop Republicans.”

Justice Merchan has been under the protection of armed court officers at least since a grand jury voted to indict Mr. Trump on March 30, according to a person familiar with the arrangements.

The lawyers plan to file the motion for recusal later this week, after the prosecutors in Mr. Bragg’s office have a chance to review it and seek any redactions.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Bragg’s office said prosecutors would review the motion and respond in court papers.

The attack on Justice Merchan’s objectivity is vintage Trump. The former president often suggests that prosecutors investigating him — and judges hearing his cases — are too biased to continue.

Mr. Trump has argued that Mr. Bragg brought the case as part of a politically motivated witch hunt, an accusation the district attorney denies.

Mr. Bragg’s case, the first ever indictment of a former American president, sent shock waves through the political world when he announced it in early April. It is unfolding against the backdrop of the 2024 Republican presidential primary, which Mr. Trump is leading, and a trial is scheduled for March of next year, in the thick of the campaign.

William K. Rashbaum is a senior writer on the Metro desk, where he covers political and municipal corruption, courts, terrorism and law enforcement. He was a part of the team awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. @WRashbaum Facebook

Ben Protess is an investigative reporter covering the federal government, law enforcement and various criminal investigations into former President Trump and his allies. @benprotess

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